If the Harvard softball team needs any motivation this year, it only has to look as far as Ithaca, N.Y. Last year’s Crimson team rallied in the second half of the season to make up an early deficit to Cornell in the Ivy standings and split the league title with the Big Red. But Cornell bested Harvard in a two-game playoff to earn the leagues’ automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.
“We didn’t come out on top [in the playoff], but sharing the Ivy title with Cornell is definitely pushing us to work to bring the title home again this year,” said sophomore infielder Breanne Cooley.
The annual meeting between Harvard and Cornell has quickly developed into an intense rivalry as the two teams have combined to win the last four Ivy titles.
“We expect them to come out as strong as they did in our final faceoff last year,” said First Team All-Ivy second baseman Sara Williamson.
Of the pitching staff that beat out the Crimson in the playoff, longtime ace Nicole Zitarelli has moved on, but sophomore Nicole LePera, who won all five of her decisions—including one against the Crimson—as a freshman, will be back, as will sophomore Sarah Sterman, who was third on the team with a 1.84 ERA.
Yet the real story behind Cornell’s continued success is their bats. The Big Red was led last year by sophomores Leah deRiel and 2001 Ivy League Rookie of the Year Kate Varde. Combined, both players led in six of the major hitting categories including batting average, home runs, and on base percentage.
Varde was the 2001 Ivy League Rookie of the Year and made the All-Ivy First Team in no small part because she set a single game and single season home run mark for the Big Red. The other Cornell member of the All-Ivy First Team is Sophomore Erin Sweeney who led all outfielders in batting average through Ivy League play. With this relatively young talent base, the Big Red hopes to duplicate some of the same success it had at the plate last season.
“Cornell will be tough,” said Harvard Coach Jenny Allard, “They always hit the ball very well. They’ll have some pitchers on their staff that are very developed. [Yet] the key always to beating Cornell is beating their offense because they’re aggressive at the plate.”
The Big Red has not disappointed this season so far. Coming off a recent road swing in Florida. Cornell (13-9) did particularly well at the Rebel Games, wining six of their 10 games. This included a win against Dartmouth and loss to Columbia. Before this past week’s games, the team had hit 23 home runs in 20 games and already had two pitchers with six wins.
The biggest reason for that surge in offensive production is freshman Lauren May, who was recently named Ivy League Player and Rookie of the Week. She hit six home runs and 18 RBI during the Florida trip and led the team to a nonconference win against Dartmouth, where she hit a three-run shot in extra innings to secure the victory.
Last year’s promising pitching hopeful Sterman has also been delivering. She has three wins and a 1.06 ERA over the last seven games. The recent hot streak has improved her record to 6-3 and her ERA to 1.61 with 56 strikeouts. Cornell has picked up near where it left off last season.
This year’s match up between Cornell and the Crimson will take place April 21 in Ithaca, N.Y. But Harvard will have to win out against several other improving Ivy teams in order for those games against Cornell to be meaningful.
“Each team in the Ivies will be good and be a challenge,” Williamson said. “We have to come out every game with intensity and competition.”
In an interesting note, Harvard has never lost on Cornell’s home field. This bodes well for the Crimson who hope to win an outright Ivy League championship this year.
“I think this team’s goal is to get back to the NCAA tournament, and they know what they need to do,” Allard said. “They were very disappointed with how they performed against Cornell that last weekend and that has served as motivation.”
This year gives the Crimson its first chance to erase the bad memories of last year. If Harvard can overcome Cornell later this month, it can take a large step towards the NCAA tournament and the Ivy League title.